Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Independent Bookstores vs. Amazon: Not So Black and White

In the last few months, I've seen a lot of articles discussing the closing or struggle of independent bookstores mostly due to the success of Amazon. This is obviously not a new issue. Independent bookstores have been struggling in this country for years (remember that terrible You've Got Mail movie?). Now even the big chain stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders are struggling and closing. It seems for the time being, Amazon is winning the battle.

I want to begin by saying, I fully support the idea of independent bookstores. They provide not only a place to buy books, but a place to build community. Many independent bookstores hold readings and signings. It is through many of these bookstores that certain poets, throughout the years, have been promoted and recognized. It is a vital part of the literary community.

Having said that, there aren't these kind of independent bookstores everywhere. I've never lived in a really big city or a very literary city, so I've read about the amazing happenings at independent bookstores, but I've rarely personally witnessed them.

All of the articles I have read on the topic, praise independent bookstores and demonize Amazon. This is easy to do. We love stories about the little guy or the underdog. We like to hate big business (even while most of us still support it with our money). And when I'm saying "we," I'm including myself. I don't enjoy going to big box stores. I think big business, as a whole, is hurting our country. But it is also very easy to demonize the big guy and make the issue seem very black and white.

In the case of independent bookstores vs. Amazon, the issue isn't that black and white. Amazon is a big company and they can sell items for much cheaper prices than a local independent bookstore and that, in turn, can greatly hurt these stores and put them out of business. They do seem to be wanting to control the selling of almost everything. This is probably not going to be a great thing, if they fully succeed. Yes, I understand these issues, and I know, like most big businesses, Amazon has some questionable practices.

On the other hand, I have to consider my own experience and factor this into the equation. I grew up in a small Indiana city as a gay boy who wanted to be a poet. The only independent bookstores in my town were Christian bookstores. We didn't even have a big box bookstore like Barnes and Noble or Borders. When I discovered Amazon, I felt like I had discovered the world. Amazon gave me access to books I would never have been able to find (probably in the entire state I lived in). Through Amazon, I could buy poetry books, classic gay literature, and new gay books. These books helped shape me into the person I am today and the poet I've become.

I went college in an even smaller rural town in Indiana with even less access to many books. I relied on Amazon through college to provide me with a window into a broader more accepting world. In grad school, I also relied on Amazon, partially for the same reasons. Tallahassee, FL isn't exactly booming with access to literature. I also had very little money as a grad student and Amazon gave me a place I could get more bang for my buck (besides, compared to the practices of most college bookstores, Amazon wins in my mind).

When I read these articles, I often feel that these writers forget that the middle of the country exists or that the South exists or some people live in small, rural areas. I've never lived in New York City or San Francisco. Every place I've lived, it has been very hard to find the books I want to read or need to read. In some cases, I could order the books from the presses themselves, which I do sometimes. Other times, the books are no longer available through the presses and there are few other options. When I attend readings, I often purchase the books at the reading, which helps support the author and the press. This again is not always an option.

I'm not saying Amazon is perfect or we shouldn't be concerned or that it isn't hurting independent bookstores, but I am saying that this issue is more complicated than many seem willing to admit. Amazon does serve areas where people don't easily have access to a variety of books.

The world is changing. I don't want to see all independent bookstores wiped out, but I do want some young gay teen in rural Indiana to be able to buy the books he needs/wants to read. We can demonize Amazon all we want, but it is winning the battle because it can offer a world of books to anyone in the world. I don't think the solution is simply to ignore that or to demonize that. There is some good here.

I don't have all the answers, but I wanted to write this post to continue the discussion and to gray the issue just a bit. We need to find a balance. We need independent bookstores. Those of you who live in areas with great ones, should be supporting them. We also need access to keep people reading and engaging in the literary world. Right now, these two seem at odds with each other, and I hope eventually a bridge can be built.

-Stephen (2 Cents)


  1. Stephen,
    Two very important points there: we need balance & yes, we too easily & too often break everything down into black & white; I couldn't agree with you more. Your vantage point is very different from mine, but it seems we see the same thing.
    When I was a teen the only Amazom was in South America (Or those crazy gals back in Classic Greek times.).Growing up in Boston, I took the independent bookshops for granted. If only I'd known what lay ahead.
    Your recollection reminded me that a small intown book shop was very important for me in my teen years. Going intown offered me an anonymity I couldn't have had otherwise.
    I find Amazon et al., big-chain book stores & the little independents all play a role in my life. My life would be infinitely poorer if I couldn't dig through the musty $1 used books on the outdoor racks of the Brattle Book shop intown, I have discovered so many books I otherwise would have never considered and a lazy couple of hours in one of the big store can be just as enlightening in its own way & Amazon offers an instantaneousness if I need a specific book.
    A whole lot of blah, blah, blah just to say I agree with you heh? People would do well to remember if they want variety they've got to patronize it once in a while. I've learned that lesson the hard way!
    P.S. I just recently found your blog, I'm looking forward to wandering through some of the older posts.

  2. Thanks so much for the comment and for adding to the discussion. Glad you found my blog!

  3. When I was growing up in Ann Arbor, Borders )the original Borders, before they were ever a chain) was a great independent bookstore that I relied on. Not only did I discover many interesting things there, they would order for anything I wanted. There were at least three other independent bookstores in Ann Arbor at that time, as well.

    Now they're pretty much all gone. Borders as a chain is going bankrupt now, and liquidating, and will be gone soon.

    So I have very, very mixed feelings about this.

    I hate Amazon. And I do understand your points about how isolated gay kids could be saved by access to books via Amazon.

    My response to you, though, since I hate Amazon, would be to point out that many of the city-based independent bookstores also had web presence, and offered online sales of rare and unusual titles. And there is alibris, Powell's, and other online mega-stores that have better practices than Amazon. I cannot put out of my mind how Amazon has done some very homophobic moves in the recent past, which I find hard to tolerate or accept. And each time I drop in on one of independent bookstores I've been to in person, to check out their web presence, they all seem very to find and sell me what I want to read. I'm thinking of stores all over the country.

    So, yeah, it's not purely black and white. But there ARE alternatives to Amazon that are almost as good, and a lot better to work with. And to whom I would rather give my money.

    In other words, I think the Amazon vs. the independents dichotomy is ALSO a bit too black and white or polarized. There are other options out there, and there always have been.

  4. Art,

    I think independent bookstores having an online presence is great and can serve as another option. It's not exactly the same, but getting there. I will point out, however, some of the ones you named also work and sell through Amazon. Through Amazon's seller page, many bookstores set up pages and sell books. I know I've bought a few from Powell's through Amazon. I'm assuming you know this, but I wonder if it complicates the issue further. Do people who hate Amazon, support bookstores that partner with Amazon?

    As for the homophobic moves, I'm still not completely sold on this. I've read the articles and opinions, but have found few solid facts to back it up. I'm not saying there aren't some issues there or mistakes that have been made, but I also know Amazon has been a huge supporter of many GLBT causes. They are the leading sponsor of the Writer's Retreat for Emerging GLBT Voices, which is conducted through Lambda Literary. It is an issue I continue to watch.

    All of this leads back to my original point, these issues are often painted as black or white. There are layers here that are more complicated than that. You have offered a few more layers, so thank you.


  5. Granted. My point was that it IS possible to order direct from publishers, from Powells, etc., without having to go through Amazon. I do see your point, I'm not disputing it, and at the same time I feel that the Amazon-vs.-the-independents is not the only false dichotomy in play here, because there are so many other options than Amazon. In most cases, I prefer to cut out the middleman anyway, and Amazon can definitely be bypassed by going directly to an author or publisher.

    I agree that the issues are far from black and white, but I also think that they are also far from binary-polarized but rather are many-poled. Your conditional defense of the good Amazon does do sort of feeds into that binary polarization, I feel, so I'm just trying to point out that there are a lot more than two options in this issue, but zillions. And Amazon isn't the only factor that kills off other bookstores and chains; those reasons are complicated, too.

    Sorry if I'm not articulating any of this very well. I do agree that it's all very complex, and sometimes that's hard to convey.

  6. Art,

    You are doing a fine job and I think bringing more to the table is great. My original post was responding to the demonizing of Amazon. My post also included the idea of alternatives and you have brought up more. These are all great ideas and options. My point is that I don't think we have to be 100% against Amazon and some of these alternatives work with Amazon on some level, which complicates it further. I use Amazon when I need it or can't find better options and for some people, in some areas, it still is one of the best options.

    Thanks for adding to the discussion.